Non-Fiction Politics

Government, Unlike Pigeon, Narrowly Survives

While the housing crisis escalates, the Government came close to collapse.

Time passes faster on the internet. Cast your mind back. Much that once was is now lost. Few live who remember them: the memes from a week ago.

“If I were to dress up as a British man, that is what I would wear.”

This was a remark made by a young woman at a Take Back The City protest. It was a Saturday afternoon in Dublin, September 22. Having marched from the Garden of Remembrance, about 800 protestors turned onto the quays near O’Connell Bridge and sat down in the middle of the road. All the traffic was disrupted for several hours.

A group of English holidaymakers were wandering through the crowd at a leisurely pace, hurling abuse at the protestors: “fucking scroungers!” One of them was dressed entirely in pink: pink dress shirt and pink pants. He shouted something indistinct at the woman before lobbing a small projectile in their direction. She and her friends ducked. It landed on the road beside them. They looked closer.

“Oh my God.” They laugh incredulously. “What the fuck?”

It was a pigeon head. Decapitated cleanly, its innards and blood were fresh.

I’m able to tell you so much about this small, strange moment partly by piecing together various accounts from social media, but mostly because of a video that one of those women took at the time. As of the time of writing, two days after the video was posted, it has over 2,000 retweets and over 500,000 views. So, while it hasn’t gone globally viral, it’s certainly done the rounds on Irish Twitter.

Aha! I tricked you by leading you in with a funny story! Now you have to read about the housing crisis! There’s more about the pigeon down at the end, but you’re not allowed to skip.

In all seriousness, the protest was preoccupied with more sombre matters. Margaret Cash, a mother-of-seven who photographed her children sleeping homeless in a Garda station last month, addressed the crowd, calling for Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy to resign. “There are hundreds of children walking the streets in hail and snow looking for somewhere to go for the night, but they have nowhere to go. I know because I have been there. They cry themselves to sleep.”

All this came hot on the tail of Take Back The City’s occupation of vacant properties in Dublin, which culminated in a confrontation between protestors and masked Gardaí. At least one protester was hospitalised and at least once Garda, apparently, was cyberbullied (I wrote about this here). In another small moment of comic timing, this came only a couple of days after Elaine Byrne’s article in the Sunday Business Post about “reverse snobbery” against Murphy (which I also wrote about here).

Independents4Change TD Joan Collins, who attended yesterday’s demonstration, said:

“Something needs to happen to spark a sense of revulsion against what is happening with homelessness and sky-high rents… This is a hard response to highlight the issue. I hope it can put pressure on the Government and can make salient points about private property, ownership, and letting property lie vacant when there are more than 3,000 children homeless and people sleeping in overcrowded houses.”

Peter Dooley, a spokesman for the Dublin Renters Union, said the aim was to force landlords to act: “Direct actions are a real challenge to the landlords, developers, and government. It has been great to see the occupations and rallies in the city centre.”

In the days following the protest, it emerged that Fine Gael Minister of State Catherine Byrne was considering supporting or abstaining on a Sinn Féin motion of no confidence in Murphy. The vote was due to take place on Tuesday. However, Byrne’s opposition to Murphy wasn’t in line with that of the Take Back The City movement; rather, it was over Murphy’s plan to build new not-for-profit rental accommodation in her constituency, which she described as the “worst plan” she had ever seen. The Government’s small majority meant Byrne’s vote had the power to decide whether Murphy kept his job.

Apparently trying to defend himself, Murphy said he hoped Byrne wouldn’t be “pulled into the Sinn Féin stunt.

“Sinn Féin had the opportunity to bring forward a proposal. Nowhere in their motion did they mention something they would do differently… This motion will do nothing [for the homeless] … It is incredibly irresponsible… The remarks are incredibly disingenuous… They’re saying the crisis is caused by me in under 16 months on my watch. That’s nonsense.”

(Apologies for all the ellipses there as I skipped through the highlights – I appreciate that I made it look like a passive-aggressive status from an older relative on Facebook.)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also said on Monday night that he would be forced to sack Byrne if she did not support Murphy. It can’t be determined whether that was what tipped the balance. But, in any case, Byrne pulled back from the brink and agreed to support Murphy shortly before 9 PM while the Dáil debate was still ongoing. The Government defeated the Sinn Féin motion by 59 votes to 49 on Wednesday, September 29, with 29 TDs abstaining.

Though they were asked, neither Murphy nor anyone else in Government has given any explanation for Byrne’s change of heart. Byrne herself said that she had “constructive” discussions with Murphy and Varadkar and she would work with her colleagues to agree on a plan for her constituency.

Fianna Fáil abstained from the vote under the terms of the party’s confidence and supply agreement with the Government. FF housing spokesman Darragh O’Brien said everyone could agree that there was a housing crisis, but the vote before the Dáil was effectively whether to bring down the Government. He described the idea as “deeply irresponsible” in the context of the upcoming Budget and ongoing Brexit talks. “Not a single further house would be built while political parties play political games.”

Murphy may still have his job, but the problem hasn’t gone away. The average rent nationwide is now €1,094. This is up almost €80 in the last year. The Minister admitted that people are paying too much rent and the market will need to be better controlled:

“I will shortly be introducing new rent protection measures into the Dáil. I’ll also continue to pursue measures to see longer leases and tenant protections when properties are sold… and, of course, home-sharing will be tackled in the very near future.”

Though Dublin’s surge has been the focus of much media attention, it is, of course, a nationwide trend. Galway City average rents stood at €1,065 for the second quarter of this year. Rents in Waterford City were €646. And so forth.

In the days since then, matters have only worsened. A much-vaulted ‘fast-track’ housing plan to quickly deliver thousands of new homes is in tatters. Although the plan was announced two years ago, it is unlikely that a brick will be set down before 2020. What’s more, Murphy admitted on Friday 28 September that the crisis has not yet peaked.

Now for the promised extra bit about the pigeon. As you might expect, much of the reaction to the incident on social media was bafflement plus memes. But, one thing that struck me about the response was that the incident was repeatedly described as ‘unexplainable.’

Don’t misread this as me getting up on my high horse, but I don’t think there’s anything unexplainable about the incident at all. It’s certainly absurd, but from the information we have, it’s clear what must have happened. If the blood was fresh and the cut was precise, then the man decapitated the pigeon himself only shortly beforehand. There seems little other explanation than a scenario where this man tracked down a pigeon in the city, caught it, killed it, cut its head off, and kept the freshly severed head in his pocket to throw at someone later. I wouldn’t mark it down as a coincidence that he waded through a crowd of people of all ages and genders so that he could throw the pigeon head at some young women.

That’s genuinely quite scary.

Today (Monday, October 1st), it emerged that a homeless woman gave birth to stillborn twin babies in emergency accommodation.

If you live in Ireland and you’d like to tell that pink-trousered man where to throw his pigeon heads, then I’d encourage you to keep an eye on the Take Back The City movement and go along to their events. It’s a good cause.

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